I’ve always thought of Sandy Denny as an autumn singer. Some of her best songs are reflections on the passage of time, a phenomenon most acutely experienced during that time of transition between summer and winter, when longer nights and dying leaves remind us of our own mortality. Her brief life embodied the autumnal paradox of beauty and decay, the melancholy tones of her music expressing both the hopeless defiance of time’s passing and the grim acceptance of life’s brevity.
Sandy herself was not entirely comfortable with her natural lean towards melancholy songs, as expressed in an interview with Melody Maker less than a year before she died:
Everyone, when they review my records, seems to say the same thing: another load of dirges. The trouble is that one of the reasons I write those dirgy tunes is that I can’t move that fast on the piano. I’m no Fats Waller, and that’s how it comes out, though it’s a real drag, I know. I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me. I feel terrible. I go and sit down and I’m really upset by it. I always write on my own. It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things and so I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit down and I write something and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that. Why do I have to put myself through it? Why can’t I think about other things, try and relax a little bit more?
Her most desperate attempt to break out of the mold was Rendezvous, her fourth and final solo effort, retrospectively described by Brett Hartenbach of Allmusic as “a flawed attempt at gaining a wider audience, by an artist who deserved better and was capable of the best.” Rolling Stone noted that “casting her as a pop singer didn’t quite work on Rendezvous,” an unusually polite and rare example of understatement from that publication. The most revealing song on the album is the closer, “No More Sad Refrains,” a song that confirms the feelings expressed in the interview and would later be used by Clifton Heylin as the title of his Sandy Denny biography.
Sandy’s excuse that she couldn’t play fast enough to write anything but dirges falls into the category of utter nonsense. The sad songs came out because she was disappointed with life and unreasonably disappointed in herself. Heylin’s biography describes a woman who gradually fell apart because she avoided dealing with the causes of what would probably be diagnosed as some form of depression. Too much drink and too much drama combined with an intense desire for mass-market recognition were symptoms of a deeper emptiness, one that would tragically lead to her too-early demise.
It’s hard to get my head around her sense of failure, of disappointment, of not being good enough. Sandy Denny was the central figure in what is considered one of the greatest folk albums ever made: Fairpoint Convention’s Liege and Lief. Readers voted her in as Best Female Singer in two annual Melody Maker polls. Her songwriting skills were first-rate; “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by such disparate talents as Judy Collins and Nina Simone. And in Sandy, she created a work of surprising sonic diversity supported by outstanding musicianship. But instead of taking justifiable pride in the artistic quality of the album, she was disappointed that Sandy failed to bring her superstardom.
I can’t accept that disappointment, that judgment. “You can try the best you can, try the best you can, the best you can is good enough,” Thom Yorke wrote, quoting his life partner’s advice for escaping the black hole of self-doubt. I have neither the skills nor desire to psychoanalyze Sandy Denny; all I want to do right now is to recognize a genuine musical achievement.
Appropriately, Sandy begins with a song about time and mortality. Without naming it, she uses the metaphor of the river of time, describing it as “the cruel flow” that eventually clutches all of us in the grip of death. Why me? Why now? Though the answer is unknowable, the human mind has to come up with a reason, a cause, an explanation of some kind of orderly process:
Oh, it’s like a storm at sea
And everything is lost,
And the fretful sailors calling out their woes,
As to the waves they’re tossed.
Oh, they are all gentlemen,
And never will they know
If there is a reason each of them must go,
To join the cruel flow.
And it’ll take a long, long time . . .
Though the song is cast in a tempo usually more suited to closing numbers, the music generates sufficient power to grab and hold the listener’s attention. Sandy approaches the vocal deliberately, easing up on the first two lines of the verses before raising her voice to the level of power that she displayed so memorably on songs like “Matty Groves” and “The Deserter.” She enhances her lead vocal with her own background vocals, her voice veiled in deep echo as if she is playing the part of the angel of death. Graciously, she donates most of the recording space to the work of two outstanding guitarists: Richard Thompson on both acoustic and electric and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar. The dual guitar solo in the middle section where Kleinow riffs to the verses while Thompson takes the chorus is one of the most beautiful guitar passages I’ve ever heard, a masterpiece of collaboration between true craftsmen. Both gentlemen appear on several tracks, but its Kleinow who heralds the expansion of Sandy’s playing field with his American country music stylings.
Sandy’s depth in British folk allowed her to write credible traditional songs that reflect the form and language of tunes in the Child Ballads anthology. “Sweet Rosemary” is a simple, straightforward song about a girl gathering flowers as she imagines finding her true love and eventual wedding day. The remastered version of the album includes the demo version featuring Sandy accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and though I appreciate the more demanding vocal variations, the contributions of ex-bandmate Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and the surprising autoharp sweeps of the full studio take, there’s something terribly charming about the less-complicated version with the pretty melody front and center. At the core, a folk song should always sound perfectly fine with a single voice and a single instrument, and “Sweet Rosemary” certainly fits the bill.
Next up is the even more elaborate “For Nobody to Hear,” a story in itself. I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off in the primitive pre-Internet era, but former Fairport and Fotheringay mate, future husband and producer Trevor Lucas figured out a way to integrate Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangement recorded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with the master recording safely locked away in Chelsea. I sincerely hope it involved airmail. Today a producer can upload the base arrangement to a secure site, then the musician can download it, add his bits and then producer the can upload the allegedly new-and-improved master. BO-ring! I love stories of people overcoming impossible odds to get things done, and the ’60s and ’70s are full of them. Did you ever see the Apollo 11 moon lander at The Smithsonian? Shit, man, it’s just some low-end Barcaloungers and a teeny weeny computer with 1/1000000 of the power of an iPhone wrapped in aluminum foil! And it went all the way to the fucking moon! I’m becoming more and convinced that digitalization and the now-now-now ethic have destroyed human ingenuity by making things too easy for us. Fuck Amazon! Bring back parcel post! Fuck the iPhone! Bring back phone booths! Do you really need everything RIGHT NOW?
However Lucas pulled it off, his efforts went for naught. The mix on this song is dreadful, with horns, drums and guitar drowning out the singer. I don’t know if they were intimate at the time, but if they were, I’ll bet Sandy gave him an earful when he got home. The lyrics also drift into self-pity (“But it made me for to write no songs/For nobody to hear”), and even a stripped-down version wouldn’t qualify as one of Sandy’s better efforts.
Fortunately, “For Nobody to Hear” is the only turkey on the album. Sandy bounces back pretty quickly with her version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a song that had already been covered by Elvis, Judy Collins and Rod Stewart. Sandy makes the song her own with her nuanced vocal alternating between tones of reflection and heartfelt passion, riding the comfy tempo with confidence. Sneaky Pete returns with sweet and lovely work on the pedal steel guitar, coaxing the challenging instrument to produce clear, rising tones that seem to drift on air. Sandy’s selection of Linda Thompson to take the role of harmonic support was definitely an inspired choice, as their voices blend especially well, most notably in the rising crescendo on the closing lines.
Sandy takes it to another level entirely with Richard Farina’s adaptation of the traditional song “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” The first two verses describe a natural world in perfect harmony (gentle tides, colours blending beautifully in the sand, the thunder of mare and stallion, the blended flower), while the last verse alludes to the destructive tendencies of man and how they wreak havoc on natural harmony:
But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.
This is the poetic version of the evolutionary history described in Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where man’s evolution is linked to the blind destruction of thousands of species, flora and fauna alike (the book has many flaws in addition to being positively depressing, but the self-destructive tendencies of our species has been well-documented). What makes Sandy’s interpretation of the story more credible and aesthetically pleasing is the power of her voice, a capella. Singing a capella is always a risky proposition, but when it’s done well, there are few musical forms that command one’s attention so thoroughly. The opening verse is captivating enough, but when Sandy adds three-part harmony (in her own voice) in the second verse, the effect is absolutely stunning—and in the last verse, when she adds a fourth part at the top of her range, the chills run up and down my spine. That fourth voice is not a decorative element, but a voice that expresses infinite sadness, a voice dying in the wilderness. The song could have ended there, but Sandy brought in Dave Swarbrick for the finishing touch: a sensitive violin elegy that expresses mourning more powerfully than words possibly could. This part always makes me tear up, as Swarbrick brings out the feeling of loss through a perfectly executed solo focused on the lower strings of the violin. The backstory is Sandy and Swarbrick didn’t get along all that well, but here they put their differences aside to create a great moment in music.
“Listen, Listen” has become one of Sandy’s signature songs, the title of a solid introductory compilation released at the dawn of the millennium. The strength of the song is its stirring melody, further powered by Sandy’s confident, free-spirited approach. She also handles the foundational 12-string guitar and receives more than enough support from Richard Thompson on mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass and Timi Donald on the drums. I could have done without the string section, an unnecessary appendage to a song with strong bones. The lyrics are on the awkward side and the storyline (such as it is) eludes my ability to make sense of it all, but the melody and strength of the performances carry the day. There is a French version available on the remastered release (“Écoute, Écoute”) that works if you’re not too bothered by less-than-stellar articulation.
“The Lady” catches the listener’s attention from the get-go with a dissonant E flat augmented chord, inverted to place the G note at the base to make the transition to the main melody less jarring on the ears. Again, I would have dispensed with Harry Robertson’s strings (or turned them down to half-volume), as I think the song would have had much more impact with just piano and Sandy’s exceptionally strong, passionate vocal. Given the heartfelt intensity she displayed, we can assume that the lady in question is Sandy herself, and the picture formed by the lyrics describes a woman who struggles with the feeling of not being good enough (“The lady she had a silver tongue/For to sing she said/And maybe that’s all”), yearns for a moment when the audience is struck dumb by the sound of her voice (“Wait for the dawn and we will have that song/When it ends it will seem/That we hear silence fall”), loves well but probably not too wisely (“The lady she had a golden heart/For to love, she said/And she did not lie”) but still clings to the dream of breaking through cold indifference to transform the world with her music:
We heard that song while watching the skies,
Oh the sound it rang
So clear through the cold.
Then silence fell and the sun did arise
On a beautiful morning of silver and gold.
Those are pretty heavy expectations to carry in a world where people are always looking for the shiny new thing.
Mainly Norfolk, the invaluable source of all things English folk, accurately describes Richard Thompson’s guitar on “Bushes and Briars” as an “obligato,” a musical term used to describe “an instrumental part, typically distinctive in effect, which is integral to a piece of music and should not be omitted in performance.” Imagine “Aqualung” without Martin Barre’s guitar or “Comfortably Numb” without Gilmour’s fabulous solo, and you’ll get an idea of the indispensability of Richard Thompson’s contribution here. While he’s probably not the first name that pops into your head when you think of country gee-tar pickers, Richard channeled enough Sneaky Pete to master the essence of the style while adding his own distinctive mark to the piece. His slides, bends, vibrato, arpeggios are as clean as a crystal stream. Meanwhile, Sandy holds up her end of the bargain with an exceptional performance that spans the mood spectrum from wistfulness to righteousness as she strolls through a bleak winter landscape to arrive at a church, empty save for the “clergy’s chosen man” and the graves of past parishioners:
I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles and thorns
Among the sand.
It should be noted that “Bushes and Briars” is not the song classified as Roud 1027, but a Sandy Denny original.
As is “It Suits Me Well,” a tale about the perpetual wanderer—the gypsy, the sailor, the circus trouper. The attraction is in the freedom, to be able to say “There are no chains about me, I am me own man,” to “stand upon the salty deck and feel the wind blow.” Sandy wrote the song in the old vernacular, a proper choice for a lifestyle that seems to be dying, replaced by a new class of itinerants who have no choice in the matter—the refugees, the homeless forced to live in cars or makeshift shelters. The characters in the song “never had a proper home . . . never had a garden or a place with windows,” finding those trappings to be unbearable attachments that interfere with personal liberty. “The living it is hard, but oh, it suits me well,” they sing, prioritizing validation of the spirit above creature comforts. Though none of the lifestyles described in the song would suit me, I understand the yearning for a life without compromise. Sandy gives us another strong vocal performance, channeling the moods and motivations of the characters to perfection, conservatively limiting her use of portamento to give the vocal gymnastics more prominence. The band of Thompson, Donaldson, Donald, Lucas (on acoustic guitar), John Kirkpatrick (concertina) and an uncredited harmonica stylist fashion a comparatively understated background that highlights Sandy’s vocal (as it should) and echoes the ambivalence of freedom won at such a steep price. One of the strongest compositions on the album, “It Suits Me Well” evokes latent feelings of resistance to conformity that might help listeners survive another day of wage slavery and activate their inner gypsies.
The original album closes with the achingly beautiful “The Music Weaver.” The third time turns out to be the charm for Harry Robertson, whose string arrangement is both rich and thoughtfully restrained, allowing plenty of room for Sandy’s flawless vocal and simple piano patterns. In tone and lyric, this is the most honest song on the album, where Sandy drops her tendency to communicate in passive-aggressive hints in exchange for honest, mask-off communication. In the first verse, she calls herself out for communicating in half-truths:
I’m a long way from you,
I’m a long way from home.
And who cares for the feeling
Of being alone?
The notes and the words
They will always unfold
And I’m left with a manuscript
That will grow old
And the secrets all told anyway.
After a lovely instrumental passage, Sandy shares her closing thoughts with her faraway partner, thoughts that reflect the desire for symbiosis but close with an escape route. Though life for a musician on the road is far more comfortable than the experience of a hobo riding the rails, Sandy feels a bond with those roamers, suggesting that the music they weave embodies the same melancholy displayed in her work.
The remastered version also features two tracks from a single released in support of an obscure, short film called Pass of Arms about two knights pointlessly battling to the death in a forest. While that description may bring up memories of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, these Don Fraser compositions are both powerful anti-war songs that Sandy delivers to perfection. “Here In Silence” is the stronger of the two, with an arrangement that integrates oboe, piccolo and bugle in the style of Joshua Rifkin’s ear-catching arrangements on Judy Collins’ In My Life album. The most powerful verse in terms of lyrical content and Sandy’s delivery highlights the inexplicable justification for waging war in the name of the Prince of Peace:
Take my children, golden children
Grow them, train them, cut them, kill them
For the justice of your Jesus
For the service of your leaders
Can you feel me, can you touch me
Can you leave me here in silence?
“Man of Iron” features another strong arrangement but the dominant imagery of knights in armor brings up too many images of John Cleese’s armored body shrinking limb-by-limb for me to embrace the song, though I do admire Sandy’s performance.
Both songs were recorded around the time of Sandy, serving as potent evidence that this was the period when Sandy Denny peaked as a solo artist. Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz gave us Sandy’s first attempt to expand her listening audience by introducing jazz and pop influence (an attempt that failed to chart); the aforementioned Rendezvous left her fan base puzzled as to why she refused to play to her strengths. While she expanded her stylistic range on Sandy, the connections between British and American folk are well-established; jumping from British folk to jazz is another thing entirely. Given the evidence of an increasingly fragile psyche, Sandy Denny was not only asking too much of the listening audience but too much of herself.
I wish she were still alive today, for even had she given up music for another calling, a mature version of Sandy Denny would look back and chalk up the mistakes to experience and take justifiable pride in the beauty she created.
My recent reviews of Elvis Costello reminded me that I’m way, way behind in my plan to review more June Tabor albums and give her a coveted spot on my navigation menu.
Okay, I’ll admit that no one covets a spot on my navigation menu, but the phrase had a nice ring to it.
Costello wrote two songs for June Tabor in the early 90’s: “All This Useless Beauty” on 1992’s Angel Tiger; “I Want to Vanish” on Against the Streams in 1994. Those two albums form part of a period in her career (beginning with Aqaba in 1988) when she expanded her repertoire beyond traditional British and Irish folk music, choosing songs in multiple genres based on the quality of the songwriting. In addition to covering songs by Elvis Costello and Richard Thompson, she brought her remarkable interpretation skills to the works of a wide range of songwriters, including familiar names such as Cole Porter, Charles Mingus, Natalie Merchant and the Gershwin Brothers, and less-familiar but highly talented craftspersons like Bill Caddick, Les Barker and Maggie Holland.
Not caring much for the available but mundane English term to describe those who interpret songs (“song interpreter”), I made up a word that feels more descriptive and accurate: interpretiste, integrating “interpreter” with the French word for artist: artiste. June Tabor is a true interpretiste, not only in her remarkable ability to capture text and subtext of a given song, but in her talent for choosing works that challenge both the singer and the listener. Some of her best interpretations involve songs that present the unpleasant aspects of human life that the typical listener would rather avoid. Because most people consume music designed to make them happy and facilitate their escape from a dreary reality, June Tabor’s work is unlikely to appear on the Top 40 or anywhere in the rotation of a commercial music channel. She is one of those stubborn artists of rare courage who prefers depth to superficiality. And while she has consistently chosen songs that explore the extent of man’s inhumanity to man, she also has a wicked sense of humor and a marked sensitivity to the complex emotions surrounding human love.
Against the Streams is therefore a perfect title for an album by an artist who consistently paddles against the stream.
“Shameless Love” is an exceptionally engaging opening track, one of my favorite songs by anybody, anywhere, anytime. The song was the title track on a 1981 album by Texas singer-songwriter Eric Taylor, and while his excellent lyrics remain in place, the music underwent a complete overhaul. The unremarkable rhythm of the acoustic original was replaced with a superb arrangement by long-time collaborator and pianist Huw Warren that features a palpable syncopated rhythm driven by piano and accordion, punctuated with sharp violin thrusts at the song’s dynamic peak. Taylor’s original also lacked an identifiable melody, rather like early Dylan songs that needed more melodically-oriented artists to flesh out the tune. Here June and Huw fill in the missing pieces of the melodic puzzle to create a tune with delightful movement up and down the scale.
The lyrics spoke volumes to me as a teenager struggling with my nonconventional desires for both boys and girls, and the song still speaks to me today after years of being shamed for my kinky predilections and living (in sin!) with another adult woman. I don’t think there was a specific moment when I turned the corner, but somewhere along the path there came a point where the judgments of others stopped bothering me: I knew in my heart and soul that the love I felt was a pure as pure could get, and I wasn’t going to let anyone interfere with the free expression of such a precious feeling:
Here’s my heart and all that’s in it
Some say roses, and some say thorns
Some say I’m a fool to give it
Crazy as the moon in a midnight storm
I learned that it was crazier not to give all I am and all I had to give.
Taylor’s lyrics suggest that shameless love is achieved after the emotional release of a good cry, and I do remember a lot of good cries during the period when the light was finally dawning—cries of sadness and joy. It takes a lot of energy to repress both emotion and identity, so it follows that the dam will have to break sooner or later. June’s delivery captures the complexity of this transformation, varying from playful to passionate with a tinge of melancholy at the end, all expressed through exceptional command of build dynamics and thoughtful, deliberate phrasing.
We can be thankful that June brought her immense vocal talent to Elvis Costello’s “I Want to Vanish,” for Costello’s version (on All This Useless Beauty, released two years after June’s recording) reveals his limitations as a vocalist in a quite unflattering manner. The melodic line features a great deal of variation, especially noticeable on the near-octave leaps that appear frequently in the song. You can hear Elvis struggling to hit those notes—an effort that also throws off his breathing—but for June it’s a walk in the park. Costello told Lydia Hutchinson of Performing Songwriter that the song was not about Princess Diana as many have assumed, but “a whole story about a backwoods musician who was being pursued by these documentary filmmakers, and all these images that were being put on satellite television were in the lyric of that song.” June’s interpretation, marked by a certain elegance in delivery, does call up images of a trophy wife trapped at a banquet table laden with silver candelabras and surrounded by bores who consider her little more than an addition to the decoration:
Whether in wonder or indecent haste
You arrange the mirrors and the spools
To snare the rare and precious jewels
That were only made of paste
Listeners often choose to interpret songs in their own way, but however you interpret June Tabor’s version of “I Want to Vanish,” the excellence of the vocal performance cannot be denied.
June returns to her folk roots with “False, False” (Roud 8276), though I doubt the original featured a background as refined as Huw Warren’s supporting piano, Mark Emerson’s subtly evocative strings and Mark Lockheart’s subtle but stirring clarinet. What I love here is that while June plays the role of woman rejected for another, her vocal maintains its strength even in the saddest moments, a choice that beautifully complements the song’s narrative flow. The marvelous Peta Webb, who recorded the song on her album The Magpie’s Nest, described the song as one that “moves from tragedy to optimism in three short verses of striking poetic imagery,” and June beautifully captures that whirl of emotions in her delivery. After admitting that fulfillment was a long shot at best (“against the stream I was rowing”), the woman rises from the emotional devastation to express her firm belief that true love is still possible:
But I mean to climb up some higher, higher tree
And harry a white snowflake’s nest,
And down shall I fall, ay, without any fear
To the arms that love me the best.
In one sense, the song bears a striking similarity to “Shameless Love,” in that it is indeed possible to feel two completely opposite emotions at the same time. Ah, the wonder of being human!
We now move on to Richard Thompson’s contribution to crime fiction in the person of that “cold steel woman” known as “Pavanne,” the “beauty as elegant as ice.” This character sketch of a hit woman specializing in political assassinations is remarkably complete, and as is often the case, the seeds of her psychosis were planted in childhood trauma.
And they say she grew up well provided for,
Her mother used to keep her boys for sure.
And father’s close attentions led to talk,
She learned to stab her food with a silver fork.
June maintains the suspense as the story plays out, rendering the tale’s conclusion by opening the final verse in sotto voce to replicate the whispering gossip of the masses who have been following the case in the papers. She then rises to full power as she delivers the shocking truth about this female psychopath:
And they say she didn’t do it for the money,
And they say she didn’t do it for a man.
They say that she did it for the pleasure,
The pleasure of the moment.
Kudos again to Huw Warren for exceptionally sensitive piano support that faithfully tracks June’s emotional narrative.
You will often find at least one song on a June Tabor album that leaves you emotionally devastated, and on Against the Streams that song is “He Fades Away.” Written by the late Alistair Hewitt, Scottish immigrant to the lands down under and confirmed Trotskyite Socialist, the song consists of the reflections of an Australian woman who tends to her husband as he wastes away from lung disease caused by years of toil in the asbestos mines. Hewitt’s original is a decent piece of work, and while his empathy is admirable, the song needed a woman’s voice and sensibility to realize its potential.
The song begins with June’s voice, a voice expressing exhaustion, resignation and infinite sadness. She is soon joined by Andy Cutting on the diatonic accordion, a sound that serves to intensify the unimaginable heartbreak:
There’s a man in my bed I used to love him
His kisses used to take my breath away
There’s a man in my bed I hardly know him
I wipe his face and hold his hand
And watch him as he slowly fades away
He fades away
Not like leaves that fall in autumn
Turning gold against the grey
He fades away
Like the bloodstains on the pillow case
That I wash every day
He fades away
The second verse deals with the complications surrounding compensation, highlighting the cold, impersonal bureaucratic response of the state (“The lawyer says we might get compensation/In the course of due procedure/But he couldn’t say for certain at this stage”). June maintains that tone of resignation throughout the verse, indifferent to the possibility of compensation for reasons to be poignantly clarified in the final verse. The song then moves to the bridge, where we learn her husband is not the only victim of Austrailia’s Wittenoom mines. While Hewitt’s delivery in the original feels polemical and political, no one can express righteous outrage as effectively and genuinely as June Tabor. Her tone and phrasing change noticeably when she mentions the mines, seething with deep-seeded anger and human outrage at the sheer senselessness of the sacrifice:
And he’s not the only one
Who made that trip so many years ago
To work the Wittenoom mines
So many young men old before their time
And dying slow
They fade away
Wheezing bags of bones
Their lungs half clogged and full of clay
He fades away
She returns to that achingly moving tone of resignation in the final verse as she remarks on the absurdity of the compensation that may or may never come, subtly condemning the values of a system founded on the belief that money is an effective palliative for grief:
There’s a man in my bed they never told him
The cost of bringing home his weekly pay
And when the courts decide how much they owe him
How will he spend his money
When he lies in bed and coughs his life away?
The bitter irony of the story is that the Wittenoom Mines did in fact close at the end of 1966, but the closure had nothing to do with the individuals and families whose lives were ruined. No, the firm in question “closed its asbestos mining operations at Wittenoom claiming lack of profitability and falling of asbestos prices.” You can read the timeline of the disaster online, but that cold list of facts won’t come close to matching the impact of June Tabor’s moving performance.
“The Irish Girl” is a mysterious tale of abandoned love from singer-songwriter Peter Bond. Though the “plot” is somewhat surreal, the moral of the story is that a man “Seeking his fortune while the brightest jewel/Was within his reach all the while” is the ultimate fool. It’s a lovely song, marvelously supported by a string arrangement that weaves itself beautifully around the melody. Next comes a brief traditional intermission combining two different fragments, the song title drawing its name from the first (“Apples and Potatoes”) while the second is based on the tune from “God Killed the Devil.” The highlight of the piece is when June shifts to nonsense syllables in a burst of “traditional scat” delighting in the sounds of the did-a-lee-doos rolling off her tongue.
“Beauty and the Beast” is actually a poem by Jane Yolen set to music by the multi-talented Huw Warren, where June abandons singing for straight poetic narrative. We find the curiously matched couple in their golden years, the loping rhythm established by Huw Warren’s piano hinting that they’re taking a stroll about the grounds. The music of the primary theme combines C major during the verses and G minor emphasizing the fifth in the gaps, indicating that all may not be sunshine and roses in Beast Land beneath the superficial trappings. Beauty’s naïve belief in her ability to uncover the prince trapped beneath a beastly façade turns out a crapper, as she describes Beast as “graying around the muzzle.” The ultimate sacrificial lamb then claims she has “No regrets—-None.” At that point, the main musical theme vanishes, the key shifts to a pattern emphasizing half-step dissonance, and in a haltering voice, Beauty (speaking through June) reveals that she does in fact have regrets—that she and Beast were unable to have children.
The woman is a complete fucking idiot.
Dr. Jennifer James famously called bullshit on this fairytale, describing it as one that perpetuates the myth that “you can marry one of those guys and clean him up.” Jane Yolen wrote (among other things) books for children, so given her family-friendly bias, her mild revision of the story is hardly surprising. What I resent about both the original and this update is that both present the woman as weak and submissive, a wimp who accepts the limited choices offered her by society and who can only preserve her status as a good girl by sacrificing her life for the family. I have no problem with women who want children—I have a problem with women who buy into the narrative that they will never achieve full womanhood unless and until they get the production line going. Love the arrangement, love June’s portrayal of the character, loathe both the tale and the moral of the story.
I return to a much happier place when I hear the accordion strains that open “The Turn of the Road,” a touching and beautiful love song adapted from an old Irish tune by prolific writer, poet, satirist and comic Les Barker. The theme centers on the essential truth governing any intimate relationship: anyone can love someone “for better” but the true test lies in the “for worse.”
Will you walk with me
Beyond the road’s turning,
Where Day takes the valley
That leads into Night?
Love will you walk with me
All through my journey
Or only til’ the light?
June’s delivery on this piece is a combination of deliberate and careful enunciation (as if she’s making sure the partner fully understands) and bursts of intense passion around the vital importance of unconditional love. The power of the combination is best demonstrated in her exceptional phrasing, particularly on the couplet “The turn of the road, my love/That’s where I need you” where she extends the melodic line on the first verse to emphasize the intimate phrase, “my love,” then frames THAT’S around microscopic pauses to make the meaning clear. After a long and lovely accordion and string duet, we arrive at the climactic moment where the last two verses are repeated over more assertive supporting music and June sings the lines in a tone revealing complete confidence in the power of unconditional love:
Love, will you hold me
Through all my life’s evenings?
Love, will you take the road
Right to the end?
I never had someone
I could believe in
Forever my lover, my friend.
Oysterband mate Ian Telfer penned “Windy City,” a bitter ode to cities in the northern climes that began dying with predictable frequency following the decline in manufacturing and the loss of empire status. Mark Locklear trades his clarinet for tenor sax, giving this largely piano-driven song a touch of urban grit. The narrator is a youth desperate to escape the dead-end life of a rust belt denizen and relocate to sunnier climes (both literally and economically). The song reaches its emotional peak in the center, where June delivers the bridge, spitting out the words with unrestrained bitterness and bile:
We went to church on Sunday
We wore our Sunday best
We went to work on Monday
The damned just like the blessed
Just like the blessed
Locklear then follows with an equally expressive sax solo that qualifies as a pure knockout moment. It’s followed by a passage of quiet reflection and relief as the narrator arrives at the train station to make his escape. June emphasizes the “never” in the phrase “And I’m never coming back” in various ways—once through hard emphasis, once as settled fact and once by echoing the word gently in the fade, reflecting the relief of escape.
Bill Caddick, a regular contributor to June’s repertoire, earns the album’s closing spot with the gentle and lovely lullaby “Waiting for the Lark.” The spare backing music of gently plucked single string notes reflects the quiet moments of early morning before the sun has risen in pastoral lands where time is not measured by the clock but by the sounds and sights of the natural world. The sound of the lark is the true wake-up call in such a clime, a signal to the farmer that it’s time to till the fields or tend to the trees. It just so happens that I’m reading Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders at present, and there are several scenes in that book that could have been set to Caddick’s wonderful music and June’s gentle voice:
Sleep on child while the birds rest on
And the cow she sleeps in her stall.
Oh the meadow stands grey
In this dew-down moment before the day.
And waits for the lark to call.
And waits for the lark to call.
Though I will always be a city girl, hearing this song and reading Hardy make me yearn for a world that isn’t driven by artificial and arbitrary notions of time but by rhythms more compatible with the human spirit.
Twenty-five years after its release, Against the Streams confirms its status as a timeless work of pure artistry and exceptional courage. Such a description applies in varying degrees to all June Tabor’s work, but the diversity and depth of Against the Streams certainly qualifies it as one of her best. While superficial can be fun, it’s also exhausting in that you have to keep going back for more to scratch whatever itch you have. Listening to deeper, richer music that explores the core of human existence may feel challenging at first, but when it’s delivered by an artist as talented and sensitive as June Tabor, such music leaves you feeling fully engaged, fully alive and more closely connected to your fellow travelers on life’s journey.